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Why managing ocean acidification is crucial for South Africa

South Africa’s oceans offer numerous economic opportunities, if ocean acidification is dealt with properly. Shutterstock

The southern tip of Africa is washed by two oceans: the Indian and Atlantic oceans. This should allow South Africa to benefit economically from various activities through developing the ocean economy. Fisheries, tourism and maritime activities are some of the sectors that can underpin the economy.

There is enormous potential for countries with an ocean economy. There are a growing number of states in the Indian Ocean that are pursuing its potential benefits. Mauritius and the Seychelles are among the most prominent.

Mauritius’ initial focus is on the exploration of the seabed for hydrocarbons and minerals, as well as fishing, seafood processing, aquaculture and marine renewable energies.

The Seychelles is exploring the blue economy as a model for sustainable development.

For both these small island states, this new economy is showing promise. But it is at the very beginning of implementation. There is also the risk that not managing it carefully and sustainably could result in failure to improve the well-being of society and further degrade natural resources.

The South African government, through the Oceans Laboratory of Operation Phakisa, is trying to fast-track the implementation of solutions to critical development issues. This initiative focuses on unlocking the economic potential of South Africa’s oceans. Its focus areas include the strengthening of the marine transport and manufacturing sectors, aquaculture and marine tourism.

But one of the major challenges to its success is ocean acidification. This is the reduction of pH levels in the ocean over an extended period of time. It is a growing environmental concern linked to climate change. Ocean acidification is caused by the uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Oceans under threat

Ocean acidification is a global process with local impact. The potential effect has been studied across the world. More acidic seawater has a dramatic effect on species that deposit calcium as part of their life-cycle. Some of these include oysters, clams, sea urchins, shallow-water corals, deep-sea corals and calcareous plankton.

The entire food system may be at risk with shelled organisms at risk. More than a billion people worldwide rely on food from the ocean as their primary source of protein. Many jobs and economies around the world also depend on fish and shellfish.

Other problems resulting from ocean acidification include loss of biodiversity and major losses in fisheries and mariculture production (the farming of marine life for food). These threaten food security, coastal defences, tourism and recreational activities. The impact is more prominent in developing countries due to their greater dependence on living marine resources from fisheries and mariculture.

Based on scientific data and projections of change, ocean acidification is a serious threat to South Africa’s plans to develop the ocean economy. This should be acknowledged and strategies should be designed to deal with it.

Ocean acidification can have a major impact on marine life and biodiversity. Shutterstock

There is a need for urgent action at all levels of government as well as at an international level. The international community can encourage national and local governments to intensify efforts further to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions. This will reduce the impact of both climate change and ocean acidification.

Helpful policies

There are also several governance strategies that can be used to deal with ocean acidification.

It’s important to promote and strengthen policies and legislation for coastal and ocean management to prevent further degradation of ecosystems. There are governance mechanisms that allow for adaptive management of effects from ocean acidification in South Africa. But the recognition of the seriousness of ocean acidification remains limited.

One way to improve adaptation options and prevent further degradation is to restore and protect coastal and marine ecosystems. The recent publication of draft notices and regulations for 22 proposed Marine Protected Areas under Operation Phakisa is a positive step towards promoting greater environmental resilience in South Africa.

The economic impact of ocean acidification on tourism may include loss of profits and employment. It can also lead to loss of tourist infrastructure due to decreased storm protection from reefs. This needs to be considered in planning activities that form part of the ocean economy.

Equally, South Africa’s ocean economy is emphasising the growth and development of the mariculture industry. Ocean acidification is certain to have an impact on small-scale fisheries and mariculture.

Knowledge, expertise and capacity are also not globally distributed and it’s vital to promote and build local scientific capacity. Research and technology that requires international collaboration is also important.

A warning system is also crucial. It could forecast and warn communities of potential problems. For example, the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network is a collaborative international approach to document the status and progress of ocean acidification in open-ocean, coastal and estuarine environments.

There must be a concerted effort to explain ocean acidification and the threat it poses to the public. Special attention should be given to people with influence, national administrations and NGOs. In many developed countries, the importance of ocean acidification is increasingly being recognised and its mitigation promoted. The same is not yet true for developing nations.

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